A Palestinian man paints cross marks on a mural depicting US President Donald Trump on part of the Israeli barrier in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 7, 2017.  (photo by REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma)

Palestinians change tack on Trump

Author: Daoud Kuttab
Posted March 7, 2018

After initially jumping on every pro-Israel decision, statement or tweet by US President Donald Trump, Palestinian leaders appear to have adopted a new tactic. They seem to have come to the conclusion that many of Trump's actions and words are intended for his base rather than part of a well-thought-out foreign policy. This shift is exemplified by the most recent decision by the White House on the US Embassy.

The announcement that the ribbon cutting for the embassy in Jerusalem would take place May 14 caught many off guard. During a visit with Jordanian King Abdullah II on Jan. 22, US Vice President Mike Pence had publicly said that the move would not take place until late 2019. Palestinian reaction has been muted regardless of the motivation behind the latest statement or whether the event will only be the hanging of a sign on a building in Jerusalem.

Normally bombastic Nasser Laham, the editor-in-chief of Maan News Agency, downplayed the matter during the Feb. 24 edition of his popular TV program, “Harvest.” Laham, a supporter of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Saudi-based Arab News that he thinks the decision to move the embassy in May “was designed to cause panic in the ranks of the Palestinian leadership.” He argued, “A muted response was, therefore, the best way forward.”

Laham also said, “The Palestinian message should be that our goal is to support the steadfastness of our people in Jerusalem and not to jump at every provocative decision coming out of Washington.”

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the Palestinian leadership has assessed that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump are sinking in their own scandals and domestic problems, and therefore their actions and statements are mostly intended for internal consumption.

“Both Netanyahu and Trump are dangerous because they are weak as a result of their own internal scandals and problems,” Abdul Hadi said. Because of these problems, the two leaders are using Jerusalem to distract from their domestic difficulties.

Anees Sweidan, the director of external affairs for the PLO, views the Palestinians' change in response differently. He told Al-Monitor, “As a result of the Palestinian leadership's strategic decision not to engage in US-only negotiations and to seek French and Russian engagement, the leadership is not interested in further escalation with the Americans.” Sweidan also said it is clear that the Palestinians are trying to pick their battles with the Americans, rather than jumping on every decision.

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor he believes the Palestinians' muted response represents a deliberate effort to focus their attention on the bigger issues.

“The leadership in Ramallah is deliberately careful and low-profile with its public messaging now,” said Zalzberg. “Not knowing whether and to what extent the Trump-sponsored ‘ultimate’ plan has been updated since first presented to Abbas by [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman, the Palestinian leadership awaits its official publication to know whether to categorically reject it or to secure support from other major international stakeholders to generate a negotiations platform in which the plan is further revised toward traditional international positions.”

The Palestinians feel that they have made their point to Trump by their steadfast decision not to talk to the Americans following his announcement on Jerusalem in early December. US reporter Aaron Magid believes that Abbas' boycott of the Americans has rattled Washington and turned the tables on Trump. Last month in the Israel Policy Forum’s online publication Matzav Review, Magid wrote that Abbas’ boycott has become the Palestinian trump card.

“Abbas spurning Trump administration-led peace processes, which a vast majority of Palestinians consider hopelessly biased, actually strengthens his position domestically,” Magid wrote. “The White House slowly may have realized just how much they alienated Ramallah during their recent overtures toward Netanyahu.”

The Palestinians are clearly the weak party in the ongoing debate over the peace process, and they have decided that they need to be prudent in how they tackle the United States’ staunch pro-Israel positions. They want to set the record straight, but they need to choose their political battles wisely.

It seems that Palestinian leaders have decided that Trump's bark is much worse than his bite and that they need to focus their energy rather than wasting it after every American pronouncement.

Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, a media activist and a columnist for Palestine Pulse. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and is currently director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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